The emotional impact of a malpractice suit on physicians: Maintaining resilience

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Physicians who have been involved in malpractice actions are all too familiar with the range of emotions they experience during the process. Anxiety, fear, frustration, remorse, self-doubt, shame, betrayal, anger…no pleasant feelings here. Add malpractice stress to the high level of pressure experienced at home and at work, and crisis looms.

In his commentary in this issue, Kevin Giordano states, “it is not easy to stay connected in a healthcare system in which the system’s structure is driving physicians and other members of the healthcare team toward disconnection.”1

See related commentary

Because of the nature of our work as physicians, we are isolated, and malpractice isolates us further. Because of embarrassment, we avoid talking with our colleagues and managers. Legal counsel reminds us to correspond with no one about the details of the case. Spouses and friends may offer support, but it is difficult— perhaps impossible—to be reassured.

Isolation fuels our self-doubt and erodes our confidence, leading us to focus on what may go wrong, rather than on healing. Every decision is fraught with anxiety, and efficiency evaporates. Paralysis may set in, leading to disengagement from patient care and increasing the chance of further problems.


It takes resilience to thrive in today’s pressure-cooker healthcare environment, let alone in the setting of malpractice stress. Resilient people are able to face reality and see a better future, put things into perspective, and bounce back from adversity.2 Resilience, a trait that protects against stress and burnout, is relevant at the personal, managerial, and system levels. Though this definition is not specific to caregiver or malpractice stress, it is applicable. It is an essential component of wellness and requires perpetual attention to self-care for successful maintenance.

Resilient people can face reality, see a better future, put things into perspective, and bounce back from adversity

Studies of physicians who have avoided burnout reveal remarkably consistent qualities, including finding gratification related to work, maintaining useful habits and practices, and developing attitudes that keep them resilient.3 Rather than adding activities to their full schedules, these physicians stayed resilient through mindfulness of various aspects of their daily lives. Interactions with colleagues—discussing cases, treatments, and outcomes (including errors)—proved vital. Professional development, encompassing activities such as continuing education, coaching, mentoring, and counseling, was recognized as an important self-directed resilience measure. Maintenance of relationships with family and friends, cultivation of leisure-time activities, and appreciation of the need for personal reflection time were traits often found in resilient physicians.


As part of the Mayo Clinic’s biannual survey of its physicians, Shanafelt et al4 studied relationships between qualities of physician leaders and burnout and satisfaction among the physicians they supervised. Many of the desirable leadership traits were related to building relationships through respectful communication, along with provision of opportunities for personal and professional development. The acknowledgment that resilient, healthy physicians are satisfied, productive, and able to provide safer and higher-quality patient care should lead to the establishment of physician wellness as a “dashboard metric.” This makes priorities clear by rewarding managers who foster self-care and resilience among their staff.

Likewise, at the healthcare system level, Beckman5 recognized that organizations can provide opportunities to promote resilience among caregivers. Organizational initiatives that set the stage for resilience include:

  • Curricula to enhance communication with patients, coworkers, and family
  • “Best practices” for efficient and effective patient care
  • Self-care through health insurance incentives and educational sessions
  • Accessible, affordable, and confidential behavioral health support
  • Time for self-care activities during the workday
  • Coaching and mentoring programs
  • Narrative-and-reflection groups and mindfulness training.5

Through an atmosphere of support for resilience, organizations provide a place for physicians to maintain a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. For individuals facing malpractice action, this infrastructure can be used to weather the storm. As Mr. Giordano writes, staying engaged “may allow you to draw meaning and reconciliation from the fact that throughout the patient’s illness, undeterred by the complexities of today’s healthcare system, you remained the attentive and compassionate healer you hoped to be when you first became a healthcare professional.”1 We must pay attention to developing individual physicians, educating managers, and building systems so that caregivers can remain engaged and resilient. It may help those affected by malpractice stress, and perhaps as importantly, it may reduce the chance of future “disconnection” leading to recourse in the legal system.

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